Lessons from the Past: What Political Violence of the 1970s Tells Us about 2017



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A Guest Post by David Hines

At the start of 2017, America looks to be in for a stretch of serious political turmoil. Accordingly, it makes sense to look at previous such period to see what lessons can be learned. One invaluable resource is Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage, which provides a masterful overview of political violence in the 1970s.

We tend to think about the process of radicalization in terms of production of Shock Troops—unshameable actors, like the Weatherman bombers, or the Puerto Rican separatist group FALN, or the cop-killing Black Liberation Army. But as Burrough’s history shows, Shock Troops in isolation faced real operational challenges, and tended to be imprisoned or killed. The most effective Shock Troops had support from Institutions: organizations controlled by the Left that operate for the benefit of its people (providing recruits, training, material support, and the like), both during the operation and afterward. For example, it’s impossible to imagine the leader of an abortion clinic bombing ring getting probation and getting an academic job, but Weatherman’s Bernadine Dohrn went on to a career as a law professor lasting over twenty years. The Puerto Rican separatist group FALN foiled several initial attempts at prosecution because they had effectively co-opted an Episcopal Church charity to the point that the Church advocated on their behalf. When finally convicted, years later, FALN faced decades in prison—but for all that time, backers pushed for their clemency, and eventually got it.  Black radicals, who largely lacked such support, tended to wind up dead (a noteworthy exception being the radical professor Angela Davis, who was ensconced comfortably in academia as part of its credentialed class).

You can get a sense of what political violence in 2017 America might look like if you look at the current landscape.  If it happens, political violence isn’t going to start from nowhere. The Left and the Right are going to start with the resources, capabilities, and techniques they currently have. It’s not fun and it’s not pretty—and, despite what partisans on both sides think, it wouldn’t be a short, glorious fight.  People fantasize about political violence, much in the same way that they tend to fantasize about war. The fantasy is that it’s quick, it’s easy, it’s glorious, and it’s fun. In reality, political violence, like war, is neither of those things.  Political violence is a long, horrible, brutal grind, and it poisons the societies where it operates.

If political violence ramps up, we should expect the normalization of extremists. Extremists don’t get mainstreamed when the mainstream invites them in; they get mainstreamed when they have organization, logistics, and manpower that the mainstream finds useful. Lefties don’t go to protests organized by real live communists because they’ve been sold on communism; they go because the communists are great at getting the word out and organizing port-a-potties. If events like the riots at Berkeley continue, expect Righties who don’t want to be attacked to get serious about organizing countermeasures, and expect the people who benefit from those countermeasures to warm to those Righties who provide them.

Black bloc participants running at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Source

The importance of Institutions and Shock Troops means that, in 2017, the political violence deck is heavily stacked to favor the Left.  A lot of people on the Right viscerally object to this idea. The Right, after all, has a lot of guns.  But guns mean nothing if they’re not pointed in the right direction, and the Left’s unending stream of protests, marches, and direct actions mean that they’re much more practiced than Righties are at herding their cats. Anarchist black blocs who pull off a riot can number in the scores or hundreds. By contrast, you may have noticed that most successful perpetrators of right-wing political violence are loners. This is because if two hard Righties get together, one of them is almost inevitably an informant for the FBI.

As a result, if political violence begins in earnest in the United States the Left and Right will have very different capabilities.  A lone perpetrator can pull off a bombing, for example, or property damage, but not a riot.  Accordingly, the Left has many more options and a much greater amount of tactical flexibility than does the Right.  The Left also excels at allowing its people, especially its radicals, to rise, which creates a much deeper activist and leadership bench.  Putting it bluntly: assassinating prominent Righties would adversely impact their movement. Assassinating prominent Lefties would not.

Could things really get that far?  It’s not inconceivable. Even now, we’re already seeing the formation of public enemies lists: Chuck Johnson of Gotnews.com has published the names of everyone arrested in the inauguration riots, and for months a twitter bot scraping campaign contribution records has been posting names, hometowns, and workplaces of Trump supporters, effectively open-sourcing an enemies list for anyone who wants one.

The good news, if there is any: early on, it’s in even the most radical parties’ interests to keep violence low-level. There’s more political hay to be had in blaming your opponent for anything that goes wrong, especially if you can provoke them into serious violence.

The bad news: if that changes, it’ll change very quickly.

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Peter Turchin

Thank you, David, for this guest post. I think your emphasis on the critical importance of organization is spot on. Collective action doesn’t self-generate spontaneously; it takes a lot of work by somebody to organize it (in the jargon of the structural-demographic theory, the organizers come from the counter-elites).

I have two comments, though.

First, what is “the Left”? There is a gulf between the “true” Left, such as Socialists, Marxists, and Anarchists, and the “Liberals” (the great majority of those who oppose Trump). I just read the recent book by Tom Franks, Listen Liberal, on this very issue (and I hope to review it in this blog soon).

Second, I believe you underestimate the degree of organization on the Right. I’ll give just two examples: NRA (the National Rifle Association) and the Oath Keepers.

Both of these points are each a big issue, so here I am just bringing them up. I would be curious to see what you and others think.

Loren Petrich

There are plenty more on the Right, like white nationalists like Richard Spencer’s followers — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1o6-bi3jlxk — “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” He even called the news media the Lügenpresse (German: lying press). He has also called for a “peaceful” ethnic cleansing, so that the US will be “white” again.

Someone punched out Richard Spencer, and it even got caught on video — is there more such violence to come?

Some of Donald Trump’s admirers formed a militia to defend him last year: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion_Guard But the Lion Guard has not been very active lately.

I’ve seen rumors that the neo-Confederate League of the South was forming a militia to be called the Indomitables.

The Ku Klux Klan has recently been active in northern states: http://patch.com/new-york/westhampton-hamptonbays/kkk-speaks-out-black-lives-matter-plans-attend-westhampton-beach in Long Island, New York But so far, they’ve confined themselves to wearing white hoods and burning crosses and claiming that they are defending white people.

Peter Turchin

Spencer was punched by a Black Bloc anarchist, actually.

I haven’t heard much of KKK — they seem to be pretty moribund as of now. On the other hand, they have revived previously, so might do it again.

But all those groups are insignificant when compared to 5 million-strong NRA

David Hines

Peter, thanks for having me! I’m interested in seeing what other people make of this, and appreciated your link to my piece on DAYS OF RAGE in your earlier post. My take on your questions:

1) On one hand, yes, there are a lot of divisions on the Left, with huge numbers of organizations, focused on different things, and many of them far to the Left of mainstream liberals. But I’m increasingly seeing it as one thing. Not only do hardcore radicals like Bill Ayres keep popping up in liberal mainstream circles, but it’s the radicals who tell the mainstream who their heroes should be, not the other way around. Nor, though there’s occasional tsk-tsking, is there any serious effort to purge the radicals, or any social pressure to.

Just as an example, mainstream liberals practically worship HAMILTON’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose reaction to the clemency for FALN’s Oscar Lopez Rivera was to weep with gratitude, call Lopez Rivera “Don Oscar,” and publicly proclaim his eagerness to reprise the role of Hamilton in a command performance for the head of a terrorist organization that murdered five people. Not only did it not lose Miranda any fans, his employers felt no pressure to issue a statement about Miranda’s comments. That’s pretty astounding, given that the guy is literally getting ready to star in a MARY POPPINS remake for Disney!

2) From my perspective, there are really only two areas on the right you see strong organization. These are 1) the RKBA movement (encompassing both NRA and OathKeepers) and 2) the pro-life movement. Unlike the Left, the organized sections of the Right really tend to stay in their lanes. The OathKeepers and March for Life people aren’t having meetings to put together their people to do something; Lefty radicals coordinate like that all the time. But the NRA does legal pressure, elections, and training; I don’t see if organizing demonstrations in multiple cities, even though it could. Open-carry protests, for example, are organized by locals or small groups, not the NRA structure. and electoral group. The OathKeepers report they’ve done some stuff infiltrating the radical groups, but they’re also very careful about what they will or won’t do (Bundy Ranch: yes, Malheur: no). There are certainly very radical anti-abortion people out there, but from what I can tell those militants aren’t as organized as they used to be. So the people on the Right who have the organization are fewer than on the Left, and they’re more careful about how they use it.

The NRA is interesting for another reason as the only American organization I’m aware of to have countered O’Sullivan’s First Law (“all organizations that are not intrinsically right-wing will over time become left-wing”). In 1977, Neal Knox and company effectively organized an internal coup that turned the NRA from an organization that accommodated gun control efforts into more of a fight-tooth-and-nail gun rights organization. It’s the only time I know of that something like that has happened. Usually things go the other way.


Peter Turchin

1. Indeed; a few years ago I went to a talk by Ayres at my university

2. What worries me (and should worry people calling for Trump impeachment) is that if Trump is removed from the White House, this will immediately result in a right wing backlash. It will probably start as a march on Washington by tens of thousands of armed Trump supporters, and who knows where it would escalate after that.

Steve H.

Trying to get a handle on the divisions in a population isn’t easy. Many are gamed, and while there may be good work in predictive marketing, social media sites use algorithms which bias outcomes.

Janine Wedel has written about what she calls ‘flex nets,’ which is a more useful frame that ‘deep state’ seems to be. It allows for journalistic specificity on organizations (as in specifically who benefits) while still being rigorous in terms of the depth of the social network.

Her book, ‘Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market’ is excellent but dense reading.


For a quick overview, this post can give you an idea whether it’s interesting for you:


The same methods can be applied to apparently non-elite participants as well. They are using different resource pools than the subjects Wedel is looking at, but that’s part of what makes it intriguing.

Steve H.

As an opinion piece, I’m in agreement with many points, and the second paragraph in particular highlights an interesting conundrum.

As being subject to cliodynamic constraints, it doesn’t pass. The only numbers are dates. If there are falsifiable assertions, they are unsupported. Saying ‘one of them is almost inevitably an informant for the FBI’ is an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

We should use the constraints to test for confirmation bias. There is room for creativity in finding the relations to test, but echo chambers can be noisy places.

al loomis

the swiss would be posting citizen initiatives, because they can. one of many benefits of living in a democracy. americans can only ‘protest’ or shoot or bomb.

the results of massive ‘protests’ of the 60’s was to resurrect the political career of nixon. the recent children’s crusade of ‘occupy’ was equally useless.

shooting gets results: lbj was likely much more interested in prosecuting the vietnam war, although i believe the main engine of the removal of the kennedys from the stage was making allen dulles very angry. still it did wonders for the munition industries.

bombing was counter-productive, so much so that i marvel that grown–ups would do it. weatherman was ‘romantic,’ but i wonder what ho chiminh thought, perhaps “with such friends, who needs enemies?”

americans are not swiss, they are political retards, particularly in the flyover states. i think the left had better arm itself, as the right has always done. it won’t be fascism, it will be americanism, but they are much the same.

Ross Hartshorn

I find myself deeply disturbed by the trend towards increasing polarization, and I certainly think the threat of it erupting into violence is worth taking seriously, so I agree with the author’s main points there. But, I find myself in sympathy with Steve H.’s criticism. Is there a falsifiable assertion here? One of the great things about cliodynamics, is that it allows us to think seriously about these kind of issues without being blown about by our own emotions as much.

I think one issue for the left would be that there is an inherent aversion towards hierarchy in American leftists, which is probably more a matter of personality type than politics even. If there are four American leftists together, two of them are forming a faction to split off from the other two. Wait, that’s not a falsifiable assertion either; perhaps a better point would be that Jonathan Haidt has done a lot of research (much of it detailed in his book “The Righteous Mind”) on the differences in the average progressive and the average conservative, in regards to their moral instincts. Conservatives have a much greater (on average) regard for respect for authority, than progressives do. It’s hard to sustain a movement if you can’t sustain a hierarchy to organize it, and I think that might be part of why the left is so partial to marches. They don’t actually require much in the way of following orders. Organized resistance movements, however, particularly violent ones, require a much stronger respect for an organizational hierarchy (which Communist revolutionary movements often had, and which American leftists predominantly don’t have).

Edward Turner

//why the left is so partial to marches. They don’t actually require much in the way of following orders.//

The term marches suggests marching is involved at the demonstration.

Here is the dictionary definitions of Marching.

1. walk in a military manner with a regular measured tread.
2. walk quickly and with determination
3. force (someone) to walk somewhere quickly

I don’t believe this happens at anti-Trump marches so we ought to use another term to describe them. How about: “social gatherings”?

Of the video footage that I saw there was no disciplined rhythm to the movement of the protesters so they cannot be said to proceed in a “military manner.”

The procession was generally slack not quick.

In the open spaces there were people dancing. Some of the protesters turned up in fancy dress. Coercion doesn’t seem to be a rule at these events.

At one anti-Trump demonstration in London I saw a group of young ladies interviewed. One of them was carrying a bottle of fizz under her arm.

I am not opposed to large protests and attending demonstrations but I would call the anti-Trump marches social gatherings rather than marches.

This is not a joke. This is a meaningful distinction.

Peter Turchin

Steven H and Ross H: this is a blog, so the scientific standards are much relaxed!

Steve H.

Thank you, it’s good to know the boundaries. I’ll drop some gingerbread crumbs upthread as a mea culpa.

Peter Turchin

My comment was not meant harshly, so no mea culpas are necessary!

Edward Turner

The terms Left and Right are useless as their definitions are so unstable overtime they can completely switch around.

It would be more helpful if instead of the terms Left and Right were used we precisely identified the particular group were are referring to in a less casual manner.

In the case of anarchist black blocs who riot on the street and then nip to the porta-pottie I believe we are talking about a group of Young, Urban, Middle class, men and women who are unsatisfied with their Status in the social hierarchy – YUMS.

What the YUMS need is jobs. Donald Trump wants to provide them.

//Putting it bluntly: assassinating prominent Righties would adversely impact their movement. Assassinating prominent Lefties would not.//

Prune a rose, it blooms more vigorously.

What you call the Right – middle and small-sized Business Owners, Nationalist Elites, and the Go USA dudes from rural town and city America – is a self-organizing rose, not a steaming pile of horse manure (which btw is very good for growing roses) dumped on the ground.

The BONEs ability and social organization to blossom incredible leaders is organic. They either grow their own or appropriate flawed ones from the YUMs.

Donald Trump wasn’t considered on the Right – by those who use such terms – a couple of years ago. He was thought to be a Democrat who played golf with Bill Clinton.

New leaders are being created all the time because the ability of BONEs to produce of them using the Internet is light-years more advanced than those of the YUMS.

The BONEs are not organized on the streets committing mindless acts of violence but this is not a measure of their ability, or lack thereof, to get organized at an extremely large-scale.

chris goble

Ross Hartshorn makes some good points. In thinking of falsification here, my initial thought is to link it to Sigmund and Nowak’s Tides of Tolerance model then think about what tracks growing tolerance might leave behind.

Sigmund & Nowak’s simulation (among others) showed that minor determinism for tolerance resulted in its spread but punctuated by abrupt cycles of decline. Multi-level selection dynamics seems able to flush out the “why” (which is probably too tangential for this discussion…)

A slight tolerance preference amongst the people in a democratically controlled/influenced country should favour the growth of tolerant institutions. Of course this assumes institution construction is responsive to individual preferences. While this appears facially valid, I don’t know of any broad-based data that quantifiably supports this assumption.

In my field, educational reform, there seems to be a clear trend over the last 150y for more student centerdness (Tyack & Cuban, 2003). This variable, as used, is malleable enough to subsume institutional tolerance (but definitional rigor is certainly problematic here). For example, the institutional aspects of education specific tolerance (inclusion, accommodation of student interests, scope of target population, discipline, etc.) have certainly increased rather than decreased since the rise of public education in the ~1850’s. Thus we have at least one soft data point concerning trends for the institutionalization of tolerance. Tolerant institutions in education have increased since the 1850’s (I don’t have any graphs on hand though…)

Societal tolerance has also increased, as measured by
immigration rates (Putnam, 2007, p. 139),
religious pluralism (Beneke, 2006) (Norezayan, 2013).

The degree of coherence between individual, societal and institutional tolerance, is of course uncertain and what we’re probably after. Kirchner, Freitag and Rapp (2011) seem to have addressed some aspects of this cross-sectional area.

Self-selection bias should be able to make slightly tolerant institutions increasingly homogenous for tolerance. Are tolerant institutional structures more or less likely to attract tolerant individuals? For example, individual-organizational resonance on prosociality increases the strength of prosocial expression within not-for-profit workers (Tidwell, 2005). So, it seems entirely possible that slight preferences for tolerance among individuals leads to slight preference for tolerance at the group level which leads to the growth of tolerant institutions. Structures for the resonance of tolerance at the structural-group-individual interface then exist. Simulations (and Peter’s historical data) then suggest, at some point this leads to a quick phase change away from tolerance.

This cycle seems to fit with basic multi-level selection theory, specifically the predicted complex cycling which happens between two strange attractors of roughly equal fitness (higher level selection and lower level selection).

I’s suggest organizational inertia prevents institutions from substantially changing their tolerance culture during short phase changes. In non-moral enterprises, such as business, this might not be the case. In moral enterprises, like education, organization resilience for tolerance due to inertial factors seems more likely. I like List & Pettit’s work here.

Here’s one counterpoint to rising levels of tolerance (Sullivan, Pierson, Marcus, 2014)

Michael Moser

Another point is that ‘we’ have gotten better at surveillance; they do monitor the internet usage of all of us, so they are better at containing a small number of radicals (i guess these tricks are no good at suppression of widespread dissent; an Arab spring like uprising can’t be contained.).

Michael Moser

technological change is often ignored when past developments are used as projections for the future. Things do change faster than they used to.

Edward Turner

Who is suppressing whom?

The radical is in power. He got elected.

This is what the blog author completely misses. If his so-called “Right” had so little capability to organize, how did they elect the US President?

Why do they keep attracting new leaders from the so-called “Left”?

There’s an asabiyyah among the barbarians outside the site and it has a magnetic pull for strong leaders.

Michael Moser

> The radical is in power. He got elected.

are you sure that Trump is part of the loony right ? (those who are ready to confront the authorities with fists) – that was the topic of the post.

Edward Turner

Trying to analyse in such a clumsy manner of Rights and Lefts doesn’t get us anywhere. Your definition of Right which appears to be “loony right … those who are ready to confront the authorities with fists” is so general you could apply it to define those who have protested against Trump.

The movement behind Trump is absolutely huge in its demographics and cannot be thought of in terms of a “loony right” – whatever it is you mean by that – or a “loony left” whatever you could mean by that. What you fail to appreciate is the magnitude of support behind Trump. Trump is radical because tens of millions of people are radical.

Trump has mainstream popularity – despite the entire corrupt media establishment creating disinformation and lies for over two years in an attempt to discredit him. The only people who now take mainstream news on face value are those who desperately want to believe Trump is a small-time aberration, rather than an optional manifestation of something much more massive.

The demographic force behind Trump is so strong it has pulled in leaders from the professional classes – your so-called Left. Trump is just one example. Milo Yiannopoulos, Dave Rubin and others have jumped on board. There are more names but, although I understand the trends, I’m not an expert on US political figures.

This fakestream media is an irrelevance now, and as it has become irrelevant it has become shrill and ever-more frighteningly but hilariously psychopathically corrupt. The stupid lie that Trump’s crowd at the inauguration was small (when TV footage proved it stretched all the way back to the monument – I have a still image if you want to see it) just one example of a production line of lies, the latest which took down General Flynn.

Trump is radical because he is working for the people who elected him, the mere thought of which has been anathema for US Presidents who have been more keen to create the conditions for big business, screw the middle classes, and accelerate global inequality.


Arab Spring was a puppet of the US government. They were well funded & protected.


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Firstly Responding to: “Weatherman’s Bernadine Dohrn went on to a career as a law professor lasting over twenty years.” The weathermen were warriors of conscience not shock troops. In all their many bombings the only people who were harmed were the weathermen who accidentally blew themselves up. Perpetrators of violence which the weathermen were not are rightly sanctioned.

“Another point is that ‘we’ have gotten better at surveillance; they do monitor the internet usage of all of us, so they are better at containing a small number of radicals (i guess these tricks are no good at suppression of widespread dissent; an Arab spring like uprising can’t be contained.).”

This is crucial. Cell phones mean surveillance and it is impossible for any effective dissident insurrection to get anywhere. Leaders will be brutally suppressed and our CIA will not be sponsoring the organizations of any American Arab Springs. Our CIA and other alphabet agencies will be on the side of suppression, not liberation.

This challenges the scientific study of civilization collapse because the environment has changed as long as that technology is in use. Our civilization with its electronics has fossilized. Any hope for potential social change is in vain and we have doomed ourselves. Fascism lite, the same great oppression but with less observable misery, like fewer calories, is with us. There will be no political violence. It will be prevented and suppressed unless it is sponsored as a tool to facilitate increased repression as false flag.

With the tools of gods and knowledge like never before our ability to respond as a social organism to our environment so as to prevent collapse is totally gone. The only rule we shall have is by those with the means to surveil and thus our ability to understand our world shall be no better than the most ancient of civilizations.

Peter Turchin

As the French say, the more it changes the more it’s the same thing. There has been many technological changes since complex societies arose, but periodic waves of political violence are continuing unabated.


What about the food supply? Americans have such an abundance it seems this would distract most of them from signing up for violence. Didn’t most historic incidents of political violence involve an inability to feed one’s children? Or do you think that is what we are headed for as a trigger to things turning hot?

Edward Turner

Classic effect of elite-over production, which I have mentioned before: new moralities are arbitrarily constructed to sort the excess candidates. Who decides which morality prevails? Hypothesis: the winning morality is the lie, because those at the top decide that trust can be built around people prepared to lie for you. This leads to decadence and corruption that becomes ever more extreme as honest people become more and more dangerous.

This is one way, within an asabiyah cycle, a golden age can lead to a period of crisis because during the golden age you get population growth, growth in population of elites, which then runs up against structural problem of lack of status positions. The invention of arbitrary morality causes the decadence, corruption and decline.

Good reporter does nothing wrong, gets fired for her opinions.

“Misha Michaels from WGBH in Boston was told by her bosses at the station that she “is not a good fit” after it was revealed that she had supported a legislative bill allowing parents to forego vaccinating their children. Michaels also posted information on her website contradicting the official narrative on man-made global warming, writing that she believes “strongly that politics has warped the scientific process and natural variation has a much stronger hand than humans do.”


chris g

Edward, a potnetial competing hypothesis to elite over-production is deterministic tolerance leading to temporary phase changes to intolerance.


The only real assumption of this model seems to be a slight preference for deterministic toleranance. Between-group selection can explain this arrow (as well as its noise).

A weakness of this model is that the simulation isn’t necessarily tied to tolerance. Its math applies equally well to any two state (?strange?) attractor.

The main reason I’m bringing this up isn’t to argue for one model or another, it’s to raise questions about specificity. While experimentation weeds out competing ideas, what happens if a number of options are actually spandrels of a deeper socio-physics? What level of explanation is scientifically most accurate? It seems as if there’s a potential devil’s-tradeoff between precision and accuracy here.

al loomis

organised violence with an overtly political goal arises when the legitimacy of the rulers comes in question. there has been significant rebellion at frequent intervals throughout american history. if cliodynamics says there will be a lot of it in the immediate future, that is just putting a professional gloss on the reality of contracting economic opportunities once again pressing a lot of americans into violence, some of it with a political aspect.
one of the charms of real democracy is the legitimisation of public policy which arises from collective decisions. instead of relying on data from economic activity, why not factor in this tolerance for hardship that democracy can bring, and the intolerance that oligarchy inspires?.
i am greatly impressed by historical accounts of how switzerland survived encirclement by the axis powers, with resulting great hardship for most. poverty, food shortages and continuous anxiety just made them stronger. if you want to project curves into the future, you must have a political curve interacting with the bean-counting.
the swiss may have their unlovable aspects, but then they were a brilliant demonstration of the difference democracy makes in the character of the people and behavior of the nation, compared to the universal elective aristocracy of europe and usa.

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